NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—Several times throughout the press conference to announce his three-year, $48 million contract with the Dodgers, Rich Hill had to pause to collect himself. “There’s a lot of emotion up here, and I kept telling myself I wouldn’t do this, but it’s been an incredible journey to get to this point,” the 36-year-old lefty told the assembled crowd of reporters on Monday afternoon at baseball’s winter meetings, before again stopping to take a breath and continue.
Perhaps the unlikeliest multi-millionaire in baseball, Hill’s new pact with Los Angeles—the team that acquired him from the Athletics at the Aug. 1 trade deadline—is just the latest twist in his bizarre career. Essentially left for dead 18 months ago as a failed starter-turned-reliever, Hill found himself in the independent leagues at 35, trying to become a starter once more despite a fastball that couldn’t crack 90 mph and years lost to arm injuries. Two years later, he sat on a dais in the giant Woodrow Wilson Ballroom at the Gaylord National Harbor Hotel just outside of Washington, D.C., having cashed in on the persistence that earned him a spot in the majors once again and made him—impossibly enough—this winter’s top available starter.
That Hill was the off-season’s ace was more a default position than anything else—a reflection of positional scarcity on the market so serious that he will likely emerge with the winter’s biggest and longest contract for a starter despite having thrown only 110 1/3 innings last season. It’s that same low innings count—Hill has tossed just 610 1/3 over 12 frequently interrupted major league seasons and has thrown more than 110 in a year just once, back in 2007—that also made him one of the off-season’s riskier buys. On the one hand, Hill was brilliant when he took the mound last year, posting a 2.12 ERA and a strikeout-per-nine rate of 10.5. On the other hand, he was frequently missing in action, sidelined for long stretches throughout the season by a groin strain and a persistent blister on his pitching hand.
This calculus—one of baseball’s best pitchers when healthy, yet chronically unable to stay healthy—is one that many teams decided they would rather avoid entirely. Unsurprisingly, the Dodgers will take that gamble. After all, this is the same front office under president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman that has committed millions of dollars to other perennial long-term residents of the disabled list, including Brett Anderson, Brandon McCarthy, Brandon Beachy and Scott Kazmir. That these moves have worked out only sporadically—that quartet combined for just 399 innings over the last two seasons—apparently isn’t enough to deter Los Angeles.
“Anytime in free agency, there are risks that you take,” Friedman said. “But no matter how much work you do on a guy, it’s different once you experience it firsthand and be around it and see it. So having that chance and opportunity for those three months is what gave us the confidence to bet on him.”
The Hill that the Dodgers saw is easy to imagine as a $16 million-a-year pitcher. In six starts with Los Angeles, he whiffed 39 in 34 1/3 innings and gave up just seven runs. His curveball—rebuilt, Hill said, in his brief time as a starter with the Red Sox in 2015—is among baseball’s most unhittable pitches. Last year, opposing batters hit just .185 on his curve and struck out 73 times in 238 at-bats. A deviling combination of movement and spin, Hill’s curve is his main weapon, and he throws it from different angles and at different speeds (depending on the hitter) to make it even more difficult to hit.
Nonetheless, this contract is a risk, even for a team that has spent the last four years burning through a seemingly endless pile of cash. Hill is far from a dependable source of innings, and while the presence of Clayton Kershaw at the front of the rotation reduces the pressure on the rest of the starters to carry too heavy a load, the pitchers behind Hill are a shaky bunch. Behind that duo: Kazmir, McCarthy, Kenta Maeda, Hyun-jin Ryu, Alex Wood and top rookies Julio Urias and Jose De Leon. Maeda turned in a strong rookie season out of Japan, but the trio of McCarthy, Ryu and Wood were barely present due to injury. Urias has more talent than perhaps any Dodgers pitcher save Kershaw, but Los Angeles has been reluctant to ask much of the 20-year-old lefty; he topped out at 77 innings in the majors last year and 122 overall, a career high.
Beyond Maeda and Urias, Los Angeles’ options are weak. There’s little reason to expect much from Ryu, who has lost almost the entirety of the last two seasons due to persistent shoulder troubles. Kazmir (who, like Hill, went from independent league castoff to multi-millionaire after injuries temporarily sank his career) was mediocre at best in his first season in Los Angeles, managing just 136 1/3 innings and a 4.56 ERA. Wood, once a prized Braves prospect, has been a flop since arriving in a 2015 deadline deal, battling injuries and control problems over 130 2/3 poor frames. McCarthy was a mess in his return from Tommy John surgery, walking 26 batters in 40 innings.
That the Dodgers will ask Hill to help cover in part for that motley group seems a disaster waiting to happen, but the truth is that there is no other pitcher on the free-agent market who could reasonably be asked to contribute anything better or more. The next-best available starter is former Yankees prospect Ivan Nova, who was dumped by New York midseason only to bask in the career-rejuvenating waters of the Pirates and pitching coach Ray Searage. Behind him, desperate teams could try talking themselves into the likes of Anderson, Jorge De La Rosa, Doug Fister or Derek Holland, but no one left has the kind of ability or talent that Hill does.
Simply put: Los Angeles needed a starter, and Hill was the best one available. That he is no sure bet to provide anything more than 120 innings is something the Dodgers had no choice but to accept, lest they find themselves trying to sell a fanbase on the joys of watching past-their-prime righties like Jake Peavy or Jered Weaver. But as Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal reports, Los Angeles’ front office is apparently comfortable with the idea of pairing whatever they get out of Hill with the bonanza of pitchers it has assembled as depth. Trading for Chris Sale or Chris Archer would be the other route to take, but the Dodgers likely don’t want to pay the price in prospects such a move would entail. For a team that has more money than it knows what to do with, better to give up what you have plenty of for a pitcher you already like and know.
It’s easier to make an argument for the Dodgers to take advantage of a rich farm system and make a deal for an ace like Sale than it is to believe that an injury-plagued pitcher in his 30s will continue to defy age and logic with his magic act. But then again, Hill has made a new career off beating the odds. The next great twist in his resurgence? Maybe it’s becoming the pitcher no one but him expected to be.